June 28, 2017

Marcel and His Letters: Graphic Designer Carolyn Porter’s Bold Passage in Typography, History, Writing and Publishing

I discovered graphic designer Carolyn Porter’s book project in February of 2016. Her debut work of nonfiction “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate” has been published this year. Her noticing of correspondence—composed in exquisite handwriting—at an antique store turned into a typeface design, then turned into a wholehearted pursuit in World War II history and storytelling. All sparked by Porter’s curiosity. Here, she shares her typographic odyssey.

How did you arrive at what you do as a graphic designer? Was there an initial encounter of visual communication that played a role in your path toward becoming a graphic designer?

When I was in high school, a friend’s older sibling was studying graphic design. I had never heard of “graphic design” before. The way they described the discipline as combining words, images, and data seemed to be a perfect fit with the way my brain works. At the time (I graduated high school in 1987), only a few colleges in the Midwest had graphic design programs. I picked the school that seemed to have the most established program.

Incredible experience of making your book “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate”—Congratulations! What was the timeline for this project? What were tasks that proved integral in managing this comprehensive project as smoothly and productively as possible?

I studied typography in college, but at the time, desktop publishing was the new emerging technology. It would be years before I learned about the existence of type design software. I have a particular love of old-timey handwriting, and sometime around 1997 or 1998, I saw the font “Texas Hero,” designed by Brian Willson. [Ed note: “Willson” with two ‘l’s is correct]. It was the first time I had seen a font that mimicked the look of old handwriting, and I was smitten. I immediately knew I would someday design a font that replicated the look of old connected cursive, though it would be years before I found Marcel’s actual letters—which is what I used as the “specimen” for my font.

I worked on the project for years—evenings and weekends when I could carve out time—before I had one of Marcel’s letters translated into English (the letters had been written in French). That sounds silly now, but when I first started working on the font, it didn’t matter what was in his letters. For the purposes of the font, all I cared about was his handwriting.

In 2011, when I first began searching for information on Marcel’s fate, the notion it might become a book didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t keep detailed notes. In late 2013, after receiving the legal permissions I needed to write the book, one of the first tasks was to recreate the timeline: What did I learn when? When did I establish contact with this person or that person? What documentation did I have? It took a month to assemble a detailed timeline, but it was invaluable for framing the story.

As far as the overall structure of the book, I knew I wanted the story to begin with the translation of Marcel’s first letter, and I knew how I wanted it to end (though that ended up changing a bit as the story continued to unfold). I storyboarded all the things that happened in between, which allowed writing each scene or chapter to feel achievable.

During 2014 and 2015, I took several writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. It’s an incredible resource for writers of all skill levels, and for those with interests that range from poetry to fiction and nonfiction. They have a wide range of online classes for those that aren’t in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Check them out.

What was the writing experience for making “Marcel’s Letters”? What’s your relationship with writing? Did you have a writing schedule? How many rounds of drafts? Did you work with an editor? Et al. Do tell.

I don’t know that I have so much a “relationship” with writing as I had a drive to tell Marcel’s story.

With the exception of the final months before the manuscript was due to the publisher, I maintained a full load of freelance work. I wrote evenings and weekends.

How many rounds? Each chapter went through dozens of rounds of edits (book chapters organizer above). I intentionally didn’t keep track of specific version numbers. I did not want a number to define completion.

Since I was unfamiliar with the publishing process, and it seemed like an intimidating, daunting world, I hired a book development editor. We started working together after I had already drafted a 70-page book proposal and had all but the last two chapters written. The book proposal is essentially the marketing plan a publisher will use to assess the viability of your project. The book development editor, Jill Swenson of Swenson Book Development, helped me polish the proposal, and query literary agents. Once the publisher Skyhorse, New York, purchased the book, I went through additional rounds of edits with my Skyhorse editor.

What are your writing tools? Do you use notebooks—If so, is there a brand or more you enjoy using?

I’m not brand loyal to a specific paper or notebooks, but don’t even think about messing with my pens! I almost exclusively use Uni-ball Roller Pens with a 0.5mm point. They are cheap, easy to find, and perform consistently.

There’s a strong (and highly welcoming) pattern increasing of designers as writers, not only as bloggers, but as storytellers of fiction and nonfiction. Other examples include art director Elaine Chen’s debut novel “The Good Brother” and designer Jack Cheng’s “These Days.” How do you feel about this pattern? How do you think this pattern came about?

Graphic designers are already storytellers—it’s just that we usually spend our time and energy crafting and amplifying our client’s stories. Many of the skills that make designers good—being astute observers, pinpointing the essence of the story, studying culture and history, curating details, cultivating emotional responses—are the same skills a storyteller needs. Designers are often the behind-the-scenes magic makers; why not transfer that skill to something more public, and craft and amplify our own stories? I think more designers should write!

In addition to the books you mentioned, I’d also offer a shout-out to Robin Sloan’s “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). That was a fun read, if for no other reason than the protagonist was a graphic designer. Robin uses the term “media inventor” and encourages others not only to invent content—the words, pictures and ideas—but to experiment with new formats, tools and technology.

I don’t know that it’s a new thing for graphic designers to be writers. Think of Steven Heller. But, I wonder if more graphic designers are publishing, because there are more platforms available, or that they’ve seen others do it. I don’t know.

How did you find your publisher in Skyhorse Publishing?

Most big publishers will only consider manuscripts from writers represented by literary agents. So, the first step was to secure an agent. My agent then submitted the book proposal and manuscript to acquisition editors for consideration.

Publishers are risk averse and need to feel confident there will be an audience for the book. As far as I know, there has never before been a book that weaves together the design of a font and a World War II history/mystery. Publishers had nothing to point to in order to know if people would be interested in the story. The book was passed by a number of acquisition editors before we found one who loved the story enough that they were willing to take the risk.

How did you find your type foundry in P22?

In 2012, I attended TypeCon, an annual typography conference. A fellow type designer introduced me to Richard Kegler, one of the founders of the P22 Type Foundry. I showed Richard preliminary proofs of the font. He expressed interest in my project and told me to keep in touch. A year later, when the font was nearing completion, I reached out to Richard again to show final sample proofs. After inspecting the font files, Richard offered to represent the font.

P22 represents a curated collection of fonts based on art, history and design—including fonts based on the handwriting of Cezanne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Timothy Matlack (scribe of the Declaration of Independence)—so I was thrilled they wanted Marcel Script to be part of their collection.

Describe your path toward publication: habits, feelings, lessons, mistakes, antidotes, amulets, whatever else comes to mind.

Publishing can be a brutal industry. It would be too easy to get discouraged and give up unless you have an absolute commitment to share your story. Any time I got discouraged, I came back to the fundamental truth of the project: I needed to share Marcel’s beautiful and heart-breaking words of love.

Lessons learned? Surround yourself with people you trust. Be patient. Be persistent. Listen to your gut. Stay true to your vision, even if that means saying “no.”

One of the people in the book, Kathy Horton, lost her battle with cancer weeks before the final manuscript was submitted to the publisher. Kathy was one of my project’s first and biggest cheerleaders. I have tried to carry her spirit forward, not just on the path to publication, but in all areas. So, I would add this to the list of lessons learned: cheer loudly for your friends.

With Marcel Script being your first typeface design and book, has this seeded a creative direction for you becoming a typographic archaeologist and author?

Combined, the font and the book have consumed fifteen years. I am open to the option of more writing or being a “typographic archaeologist”—love your term, by the way—but first, I need to take some time off. And by that, I mean limit work to my regular daytime job. When I’m ready to jump in to the next project, I’ll jump in. But I need a break first.

Time will tell if I pare back client work and dedicate more time to writing and/or type design. Ask me this question again a year from now, OK?

Appreciate the fact that your discovery of Marcel’s original letters, the inspirational source of your typeface Marcel Script, happened at an antique shop. Do you visit often antique/vintage stores? Are there other stimulating places you feel are inspiring and help nurture your creative sensibilities?

During the last few years, all of my time and energy has been devoted to the book. So, no, I have not spent much time visiting antique stores. However, I have been known to scour eBay for old type or handwriting specimens in the early morning hours when I can’t sleep.

I think inspiration can be found anywhere and everywhere if you’re open to seeing it. Travel is always a way to expose yourself to new colors and patterns and cultures. But, less expensive options can be found closer to home: go to a museum or art festival, watch an old black and white foreign film and pay attention to editing choices, go for a walk in the woods and look at patterns and colors in nature.

What is your vision of satisfaction, as it relates to your chosen career?

Oh, wow. That’s a big question. I speculate any measure of satisfaction will change at any given time. Some days, kerning a headline can elicit a moment of blissful satisfaction. Other times, it’s hearing about a client’s success, or the pride in completing a well-crafted project. Other times, it’s knowing I have freedom to say yes or no to a project.

Sometimes satisfaction seems entirely elusive, to be honest. Satisfaction seems to require time for reflection and our industry is changing fast.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going as a graphic designer with the current addition of typeface designer?

Type doesn’t pay the bills. Not for me, anyway, and not with one font. A recent online survey showed more than 50% of type designers were full-time graphic designers. I enjoy being a graphic designer, which is a good thing because I rely on that as my primary source of income.

During the previous years, my business has changed a bit in that I’ve been designing more iPad apps. Those have been a lot of fun to work on, because in addition to using traditional graphic design problem-solving and layout skills, the projects include animated elements that bring design to life in a way that can’t be achieved with print. Think: 360˚ swiping and pop-up elements.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to design and write,” what’s your response?

Do it! Do it even if it doesn’t turn into a book. Tell your story. Tell the stories of other designers! Help people understand the value and importance of design.

How does the city of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creative community?

White Bear Lake is a suburb north of St. Paul. While it’s a lovely place with a charming history and a big, beautiful lake, I wouldn’t call it a hotbed of creativity. It is, however, close to both St. Paul and Minneapolis. The Twin Cities has a vibrant community of creatives: designers, photographers, fine artists, craftspeople, letterpress printers, etc. The Twin Cities also has one of the most active AIGA chapters in the country, and is home to a kick-ass community of lettering artists and type designers.

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Majority of images courtesy of Carolyn Porter.

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